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The Supreme Court has ruled that denying a couple the right to enter heterosexual civil partnerships is incompatible with human rights laws.

In 2005, civil partnerships were introduced, allowing same-sex couples the right to have their relationships legally recognised and providing them with financial protection akin to marriage.

In 2014, same-sex marriages were legally recognised and, accordingly, lesbian and gay couples can now choose whether to marry or enter into a civil partnership, while heterosexual couples can only to enter into a marriage, as heterosexual civil partnerships do not exist. Both types of couple can, of course, choose to cohabit, but that offers little or no financial protection.

Since same-sex marriage has been introduced, the overall number of couples entering into civil partnerships has reduced, according to the Office for National Statistics (although, interestingly there was an increase of 3.4% in civil partnerships in 2016 compared to 2015).  As a result of this general trend, the government is now considering scrapping civil partnerships altogether, as The Times reported earlier in the year.

Shortly after same-sex marriage was legalised, it became possible to convert civil partnerships into marriages: 7,732 couples chose to do this within the first six months.

Marriage vs heterosexual civil partnerships

However, there remain some people for whom a civil partnership remains preferable over marriage. Some wish to avoid any religious connotations associated with marriage – and about half of the UK population say they have no religious affiliation. Currently, any heterosexual couple wishing to enter into a civil partnership would need to do so in the Isle of Man, the only part of the British Isles where both same-sex and heterosexual couples can register a civil partnership.

However, civil ceremonies for marriage, which have no religious connotations, are available and it is therefore clear that this is not the only reason that some wish to choose civil partnership. For example, the couple who recently took their challenge to the Supreme Court, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, do not want to marry because they do not agree with the “legacy of marriage”.

Financial protection for unmarried couples

There remains an ongoing debate by family lawyers about the need for greater awareness of the lack of financial protection for unmarried couples, who can find themselves in a perilous situation on separation.  It would therefore be regrettable if the avenues available that provide financial protection are reduced to any couple – whether lesbian and gay or heterosexual.

The government is not obliged to do anything as a result of the ruling in the Supreme Court but any decision should be carefully considered; it would be a pity if the rights of those couples who chose to cohabit are not considered in any forthcoming reviews of family relationships.

In 2017, the most common family type in the UK was married or civil partner couple families, although cohabiting couples are on the rise.  The law has, at times, been slow to keep up with social changes within society – perhaps now is the time to consider how all family types can be protected and supported.

For more information on any of the issues raised in this article or on family and relationship issues in general, please contact Carol Chrisfield, Solicitor in our Bristol-based Family department, by emailing [email protected] or calling 0117 904 5958.